British lawyer and the founder of human rights group Amnesty International Peter Benenson sadly passed away February 25 2005 at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford. 31st July 1921 in London. Benenson was tutored privately by W. H. Auden before going to Eton. At the age of sixteen he helped to establish a relief fund with other schoolboys for children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War. He took his mother’s maiden name of Benenson as a tribute to his grandfather, the Russian gold tycoon Grigori Benenson, following his grandfather’s death.He enrolled for study at Balliol College, Oxford but World War II interrupted his education. From 1941 to 1945, Benenson worked at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking centre, in the “Testery”, a section tasked with breaking German teleprinter ciphers.It was at this time when he met his first wife, Margaret Anderson. After demobilisation in 1946,
Benenson began practising as a barrister before joining the Labour Party and standing unsuccessfully for election. He was one of a group of British lawyers who founded JUSTICE in 1957, the UK-based human rights and law reform organisation. In 1958 he fell ill and moved to Italy in order to convalesce. In the same year he converted to the Roman Catholic Church.In 1961 Benenson was shocked and angered by a newspaper report of two Portuguese students from Coimbra sentenced to seven years in prison for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom during the autocratic regime of António de Oliveira Salazar – the Estado Novo. In 1961, Portugal ruled by the authoritarian Estado Novo regime, and anti-regime conspiracies were vigorously repressed by the Portuguese state police and deemed anti-Portuguese. He wrote to David Astor, editor of The Observer. On 28 May, Benenson’s article, entitled “The Forgotten Prisoners”, was published. The letter asked readers to write letters showing support for the students.
To co-ordinate such letter-writing campaigns, Amnesty International was founded in London in July 1961 at a meeting of Benenson and six other men, which included a Tory, a Liberal and a Labour MP.The response was so overwhelming that within a year groups of letter-writers had formed in more than a dozen countries.Initially appointed general secretary of AI, Benenson stood down in 1964 owing to ill health. By 1966, the Amnesty International faced an internal crisis and Benenson alleged that the organization he founded was being infiltrated by British intelligence. The advisory position of president of the International Executive was then created for him. In 1966, he began to make allegations of improper conduct against other members of the executive. An inquiry was set up which reported at Elsinore in Denmark in 1967. The allegations were rejected and Benenson resigned from AI.While never again active in the organization, Benenson was later personally reconciled with other executives, including Seán MacBride and also received the Pride of Britain Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001.